The human encounter with death : an anthropological approach
The thesis explores the quality of death-related experience, that
is the semantic resonance of acts, events and utterances taking
place in time and space framed predominantly by death. It draws
on an anthropological/hermeneutic understanding that meaning
arises out of the relationship between an act/event/utterance and
its cultural and social setting. The source selected is Ricoeur's
work on the relationship between text and context.
Accordingly, the historical background to the contemporary
Western encounter with death is explored. An aspect of the
scientific revolution of the sixteenth century is the emergence
of a controlling rather than interpretive orientation towards the
natural world. Medicine's role in controlling death has been
important in the creation of the present boundary between life
and death. The quality of contemporary death-related experience
is understood within this context.
The three areas selected for study through participant
observation are (1) Hospice death (2) ageing in residential care
(3) bereavement. These contexts reveal the limits of a medical
model of the relationship between life and death. The slow
deterioration of old age is shown to present problematic
ambiguities within a culture committed to maintaining a rigid
life/death boundary. Similarly the death of a partner can raise
difficulties for bereaved individuals unable to make a clear
separation between a shared past and a solitary present. Hospice
care and bereavement counselling are contemporary responses to a
divisive and de-humanising life/death boundary. Through
bereavement counselling the continuum of a past shared life, a
current loss, and an independent future life can be reintegrated.
Through Hospice care, dying can be openly acknowledged and managed, so effecting the social, emotional and spiritual
reintegration of dying individuals and their survivors.
Together these contexts reveal the ways in which an awareness of
death may be culturally and socially deflected - or directed.